Cyrille Gallion: Towards a New Anarcho-Syndicalism (2006)

The Anarcho-Syndicalist Revolution

Cyrille Gallion is a member of the French anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the Confederation Nationale du Travail (CNT-F). In the following excerpts, translated by Paul Sharkey, Gallion argues that contemporary anarcho-syndicalists must focus on popular self-organization and put their trust in direct or participatory democracy, a common theme in many of the selections I have included in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I will be discussing these issues, together with Dimitri Rousopoulos and Davide Turcato, on November 20, 2012 at the downtown Central Public Library branch in Vancouver, at the book launch for Volume Three.

Occupy Wall Street General Assembly

Direct Democracy is Revolutionary

One does not sit around and wait for the revolution to arrive; one builds towards it!

In its current form (representative democracy), or in some other guise, capitalism  may collapse in a few years or linger for centuries. What comes next may be a system that humanity has already sampled or indeed something quite new. History has no meaning, no harm to those who prattle otherwise. Nothing is written, nothing is inevitable.

There have been many systems throughout history (feudalism, for one) that have teetered for one or two centuries before entrenching for a lasting period (a millennium).

Signing up for the duration without knowing what the future holds leads us to be voluntarists. So it is not a matter of preparing the “workers’ party” while we wait for capitalism to collapse, but rather of laying the groundwork for a different society within and without capitalism, regardless of whether the capitalist mode of production should endure or crumble. Should it endure, we have to rebuild from below the society that allowed it to gain a foothold. Should it crumble, it would be better if we were to lay the groundwork for a new society in advance. For spontaneity in the absence of a grassroots political culture and organization might bring with it the risk of our following an authoritarian route…

The righteous demand for justice now should go hand in hand with the construction of an enduring, underlying movement. Here again we must move beyond the tensions between revolutionary spontaneists for whom all things are achievable at once (spontaneists who forget that they have been or are such with decades of the workers’ movement behind them) and the Stalinist movements which reckon that we should all wait for our orders to arrive.

Representative “Democracy” is the Counter-Revolution

Supporters of a revolution, which is to say of a society freed of capitalism, are jaded at present. Especially those who were around for the past few decades. A time when, for many workers, the issue was not knowing whether a revolution needed making but when and how to go about making one…

Paradoxically, signing up for the long haul is the surest and fastest route. We have to take everything back to the start and ponder a body of actions and ideas that might build up to a genuine revolutionary movement. Besides the classic tools of trade unionism, there is a chance to build up a reservoir of thought that may crystallize a response to capitalism. We shouldn’t feel any sort of a complex when dealing with intellectuals, left or right. The federalist mode of operating magnifies our strength, for the networking of our ideas multiplies their strength. We reject the gulf between intellectuals and people, between party and trade union. We are all one and theory and practice are forever cross-fertilizing one another.

Anarcho-syndicalism should be profoundly popular and we must equip ourselves for this. Equipping ourselves means sparing a thought for the actual circulation of our publications, which seems obvious enough, but it applies also to searching for other ways of making propaganda.

Most of our propaganda originates with militants and is intelligible only to other militants. It is not enough for a tract to be distributed; it needs to be read as well. Our movement is still too focused upon the world of the militant and too heedful of what the militants from other organizations (or without organizations) are thinking, and not sufficiently alive to ways of genuinely communicating our ideas to the masses. The important point is to break out of the militant universe that has been arguing over the sex of angels ever since the siege of Constantinople.

True, this calls for effort of quite a different sort. Rather than disquisition about the finer points of the [anarchist] Synthesis and the Platform [of Libertarian Communists] for the consumption of anarchists, or about Trotsky’s part in Kronstadt for the benefit of Lutte Ouvrière members, or about the dangers posed by the National Front or indeed the treachery of the socialists, we must, as a matter of urgency, make ourselves intelligible to the majority of the population. The written word is extremely important and trade unionism must remain a schoolroom encouraging us all to read. But confining ourselves to the intellectual practice of the written word is elitist: acting as if everybody had ready access to the world of the written word equally so. The priority for the anarcho-syndicalist movement… is to target others for our ideas and actions by other means, starting with audio and video…

Among the classical formats of the revolutionary movement, there is this one: a small but ‘attuned’ number of people organize themselves into a group founded upon moral and ideological attitudes and then try to influence more broadly based movements or organizations. This is the outlook that spawned Stalinism and all its horrors. Moral beings end up sacrificing themselves or in countenancing everything in the name of efficacy. Efficacy: the word has been an excuse for all manner of criminality! True, efficacy is to be wished for, but one step at a time.

Alternatively, people organize on the basis of interests. Misconstrued short term interests lead to a corporatist trade unionism… But there is also such a thing as long-term self-interest.

We should not reject self-interest: it is a more peaceable course than the moralistic route. The moralistic route cannot be squared with libertarian thinking since it consists of seeking what is good for others, in spite of them.

This is how trade unionism should be, a congregation of individuals driven by their respective self-interest. We must have done with these notions of vanguards and active minorities who look upon themselves as the sole repositories of class consciousness. Anarcho-syndicalism, if we have to use big words, is the very opposite of this: it sees itself as a popular movement of regular people, not some clique of militants, not some “elite trade unionism”.


On the other hand this is a trade unionism which is a vehicle for values that are part and parcel of it, values such as anti-clericalism, anti-militarism, feminism, these being the values of trade unionism rather than political values injected into trade unionism. Engagement with anti-militarism or ecology is a logical consequence of trade unionism.

The confusion arises from the fact that the political parties have made such activities their own and, above all, have sought to restrict the unions’ sphere of operations to straightforward wage claims. The political parties (whether they run for election or not) cannot countenance the existence of an organization that rejects the dividing line between individuals driven by a moral craving and those who band together on the basis of their interests. The fact remains that the best long term means of raising class consciousness, to use some grandiose terms, is actually for these two approaches, the moral and the interest-based, to be married.

The party political approach designed to cream off “the best elements” of the trade unions, or whatever movements and collectives, for the “nobler” organization is the most absurd, in that it belittles the political maturity (logos) of the “people”. A change of society is not achievable by violence from above and mind-sets cannot be altered by decree. An idea has to be widespread throughout society.

Awarding the party exclusive title to do the thinking renders the entire set-up precarious.  It is made up of normal people with their good points and shortcomings. One does not join a trade union on the basis of taking an exam on its thinking, but because it has something to offer us. Then again, a trade union is more than just a fight for wages; it is a culture, a collective school, embodying values which are held in esteem.

Democracy within the organization is a risk that has to be taken. An genuinely democratic organization has no taboos, no immutable rules. Certain revolutionaries (actually most of them), including the anti-authoritarians, libertarians and others among them, are democrats only up to a point. They aim to put “strait-jackets” on the organizations they build, failing to see that they are smuggling in a fundamental contradiction threatening the entire edifice right from the outset.

In a genuinely democratic trade union, every wage earner is free to join and partake in the life of his or her trade union, including tinkering with the means of the union and diverting it away from the initial goal the earliest members of the union set themselves.  Unless one takes this risk of democracy by, say, building immutable values into the union, then those values go unchampioned and are no longer pertinent but dead. Which is precisely what Simone Weil meant when she wrote that the trade unions were dead organizations!

The values that strike us as important, simply because they are imposed by the statutes of the trade union, require no further explanation and are in no danger of spreading. This is a paradox in which many revolutionary organizations (including – indeed, especially – the anarchist ones) are trapped.

Direct Action Against Capitalism

By contrast, in a free society there is no such imposition; these things are thrashed out. It is always an issue whether the values we champion ought to be defended in a democratic organization. Those values, which some would describe in a non-democratic context as ideology… are communist and anarchist values; in short, the values of the revolutionary movement. They have one meaning in the context of a democratic organization wherein they are up for argument and rebuttal, whereas they become ridiculous or dangerous if they are confined within a political party or trade union that lays down inflexible rules in order to defend them.

To conclude on this point, if some would rather stay inside a pure organization with specific rules, we ourselves would rather run the risk of having one day to leave the organization we are building. Freedom cannot be imposed, which is why a genuinely functioning democracy is rickety and risky, but it could hardly be otherwise.

Trade unionism in the proper sense is revolutionary… But it is the structure which is revolutionary, rather than its component members. Regular people are the ones who join trade unions and they are revolutionaries because of their self-organization, rather than being revolutionaries in the militant and personal sense of the term.

So let us roll up our sleeves and reflect upon the mistakes of the past, especially as they relate to revolutionary syndicalism, without thereby being prevented from experimenting, and let us leave it  to the union membership to deal with the logic of whatever needs they may encounter.

Cyrille Gallion


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